Saturday, January 24, 2009

Born To Be Bad At Math

Are you terrible with numbers? You could have the same problem as this woman.

Last November, Jill got herself screened for learning disabilities. She found that while her IQ is above average, her numerical ability is equivalent to that of an 11-year-old because she has something called dyscalculia.

This was actually good news.

The diagnosis came partly as a relief, because it explained a lot of difficulties she had in her day-to-day life. She can't easily read a traditional, analogue clock, for example, and always arrives 20 minutes early for fear of being late. When it comes to paying in shops or restaurants, she hands her wallet to a friend and asks them to do the calculation, knowing that she is likely to get it wrong.

People with dyscalculia, also known as mathematics disorder, can be highly intelligent and articulate. Theirs is not a general learning problem. Instead, they have a selective deficit with numerical sets. Put simply, they fail to see the connection between a set of objects - five walnuts, say - and the numerical symbol that represents it, such as the word "five" or the numeral 5. Neither can they grasp that performing additions or subtractions entails making stepwise changes along a number line.

The cause is mysterious, partly because the source of the ability to comprehend numbers is itself uncertain.

One school of thought argues that at least some elements of it are innate, and that babies are born with an exact-number "module" in their brain. Others say exact number is learned and that it builds upon an innate and evolutionarily ancient number system which we share with many other species. This "approximate number sense" (ANS) is what you use when you look at two heavily laden apple trees and, without actually counting the apples, make a judgement as to which has more.

But just knowing it exists can be helpful.

....simply recognising dyscalculia as a problem on a par with dyslexia would make a huge difference. As Jill says, now that she knows what her problem is, "it's easier to have the confidence and the perseverance to keep working until I get it".